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They settled for the podium.

“I think it’s important to get a good start points-wise,” Earnhardt said. “It’s important to put a good foundation of points together. If you get behind early, it seems like you’re still chasing that Chase spot at Richmond.”

Earnhardt made the Chase for the championship last year, but finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of post-concussion symptoms.

Nonetheless, running in the top five in points most of the season and spending a few weeks atop the standings provided a big boost for an ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup championship.

“We’re a good team,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep the pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win some races. I want to really try to win some more races this year. That’s our focus.”

The redesigned car could be the key to making it happen. Earnhardt managed just two wins over the last six years in the previous car.

Of course, it could be weeks, maybe months, before Earnhardt knows how his No. 88 Chevrolet will stack up in 2013.

Eventually, though, he would like to drive it back to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.

He hated the racing at Daytona in recent years, first complaining loudly that the track needed to be repaved and then really hating the resulting tandem racing after it was resurfaced in 2010.

Now, though?

“I liked it,” he said. “I think that the package is really good. The surface is still relatively new, which provides tons of grip. If we had the old surface with this car, it would have been an incredible race, people sliding around, wearing tires out, just trying to dig as hard as they could. We’ll get to that as the track ages. I’d hate to see them messing with the car to get a better package because the track is in good shape.

“It’s down here next to the beach. It will wear out and age quite rapidly compared to some other tracks that have been repaved. As the track changes, the tire will ultimately change and be able to wear and you’ll see guys moving around, different things happening.”

Maybe Earnhardt even will end up taking center stage.